Ulster Rugby vs Treviso

Votes are being counted, candidates hoping for success, but there’s still some way to go before a winner can be firmly revealed. PLAYING TO THE MAXIMUM

Yes, the chase for the Guinness PRO12 title is well-and-truly ‘on’, some expected challengers have dropped off the radar, others – many of them familiar – are navigating the demands of the Six Nations to keep their hopes alive. Ulster, for so long the leading side, finds itself in a position where it must hunt down the teams at the moment in pole position for a place in the play-offs. Recent results have been very satisfactory, players have responded to the task of claiming a top four place by the end of the regular season when current table-toppers Leinster visit Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, 6th May. That fixture could have even more at stake than is commonplace when these two fierce, historic Irish rivals meet. But in the coming weeks, just how important that game will be to Ulster will be decided by its performances and results against others, and tonight’s encounter in Belfast is one which might appear less formidable but it is certainly no less critical to any trophy aspirations. The trio of games in a fortnight against Italy’s best continues tonight with the visit of Treviso, and for understandable reasons supporters believe that given the ‘maximums’ registered against Edinburgh and Glasgow, and again away to Zebre on Sunday last, there is the prospect of edging closer to the Top Four in the PRO12 Championship with another try-bonus win. The immediate target of the coaches and the players will be a win and four crucial points, but such is the fierce competition for play-off places in May they all realise that only a sound forward platform can release a free-scoring backline to pluck those precious ‘extras’! Last weekend Les Kiss, Ulster’s Director of Rugby, described the 40-17 win in Parma against Zebre as ‘mission accomplished’, and he was admirably candid about the frustrating nature of the team’s performance despite, ultimately, registering six tries. A great start, with Ruan Pienaar and Tommy Bowe to the fore in Chris Henry’s very early touchdown promised much, and when Pienaar scored shortly after it did augur well for an Ulster display of ruthless, attacking consistency.

Kiss said there were ‘some choice’ words in the dressing room at the interval in Italy with the bottom-of-the-table opposition just four points adrift, and certainly there was a sharper edge to individual and collective application in the second period. Against Treviso this evening the players and staff know that the errors and poor decision-making at times in Parma will be more robustly punished. The visitors to Kingspan will hope to have some of their internationals released by Italy coach Conor O’Shea to strengthen a team which has invariably posed Ulster some problems in PRO12 history. Seven of the Italian squad was in the Italy panel on duty at Twickenham last weekend, and it’s unlikely that classy backs such as Tomasso Allen and Luke McLean, and influential forwards like Marco Fuser will be in Belfast, but the home side will have looked at Treviso’s defeat at home to Connacht in some detail, and will have identified some of the areas which – particularly early on - gave the men from the West real problems. The fans on the terraces and in the seats at Kingspan will surely be in good voice after three consecutive games yielding 15 league points and the pursuit of Leinster, Ospreys, Munster and the Scarlets - perhaps the surprise packets of this year’s campaign – demands another big return this evening. The focus will be solely on getting the desired result but everyone knows that a swift return encounter is in prospect against Zebre next weekend here in Belfast. The leading sides, those occupying the four play- off spots currently, are setting a hot pace, but the fixture list for the next month or so pitches all of them against each other, and Ulster must be in a position to capitalise – and be in the sort of form and determined to come out on top when sides like Leinster come calling, and when the games in Swansea, Limerick and Cardiff arrive. One of the very definite ‘plusses’ of the trip to Parma was the sight of Jared Payne returning to the team, and his impact was almost instant, that calm authority and eye for space and the right pass or kick producing an important try to settle a wobbly Ulster psyche.




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